Assessing the sustainability of bioethanol production in different development contexts: A systems approach

University dissertation from Stockholm : KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Abstract: The continuous depletion of fossil fuel reserves, the global agenda on climate change and threats to energy security have led to increased global interest in the exploration, production and utilisation of bioenergy and biofuels. Access to modern bioenergy carriers derived from the efficient conversion of locally available biomass resources is indispensable for economic growth, rural development and sustainable development in developing countries. Deployment of bioenergy/biofuels technologies has significantly varied across the globe. The least developed countries (LDCs) and developing countries are still highly dependent on traditional biomass technologies with low conversion efficiency, which are typically associated with significant environmental and health impacts. Meanwhile, emerging economies and developed countries are progressively promoting biofuel industries and international trade. They are also engaged in making biofuels a sustainable proposition by developing sustainability criteria. The goal of this thesis is to address the sustainability of bioethanol production derived from one of the key feedstocks/energy crops: sugarcane. This will be done by analysing different development contexts and environmental constraints in terms of geopolitical situation, economic development and state-of-the-art technologies in agro-industrial development. Life cycle assessment (LCA), system studies, and techno-economic optimisation are the main methodological approaches applied in the thesis. The thesis primarily addresses three key questions for analysing the sustainability of bioethanol production.The first research question investigates the key parameters affecting the sustainability of bioethanol production and use in a low-income country using the case of Nepal. The net energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) balances are identified to be the main sustainability criteria of the sugarcane-molasses bioethanol (Paper I and II). Results of the lifecycle studies show that the production of bioethanol is energy-efficient in terms of the fossil fuel inputs required to produce the renewable fuel. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the production and combustion of ethanol are also lower than those from gasoline. The study also evaluates the socio-economic and environmental benefits of ethanol production and use in Nepal, concluding that the major sustainability indicators are in line with the goals of sustainable development (Paper III). Assessment of the biofuel (molasses-bioethanol) sustainability in Nepal is the first of its kind in low-income countries, and serves also the purpose of motivating the assessment of ethanol production potential in other LDCs, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.The second question critically evaluates methodologies for accounting the lifecycle GHG emissions of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol in European and American regulations, depicting commonalities and differences among them (Paper IV). GHG emissions are becoming increasingly important as part of sustainability criteria in the context of the expansion of biofuel production and international trade. However, different methodologies still lead to quite different results and interpretation. To make this an operational criterion for international comparisons, it is necessary to establish unified methodological procedures for accounting GHG emissions. The thesis identifies the major issues as  N2O emissions from agricultural practices, bioelectricity credits in fuel production, and modelling approaches in estimating emissions related to direct and indirect land use change (LUC & iLUC), that need to be addressed for establishing methodological coherences.The third research question investigates how the sugarcane bioethanol industry can be developed in terms of energy security and the diversification of energy sources. The case of complementarity between bioelectricity and hydropower is evaluated in the cases of Nepal and Brazil and presented in Paper V. Bioelectricity could offer a significant share of electricity supply in both countries provided that favourable political and institutional conditions are applied. Finally, in order to find the choice of technological options for the production of second generation (2G) bioethanol and/or of bioelectricity, a techno-economic optimisation study on the bulk of sugarcane bio-refineries in Brazil is carried out in Paper VI, taking into account the entire lifecycle costs, emissions, and international trade. The study shows that it is worthwhile to upgrade sugarcane bio-refineries. Energy prices, type of power generation systems, biofuel support and carbon tax, and conversion efficiencies are the major factors influencing the technological choice and potential bioethanol trade.In short, this dissertation provides insights on the sustainability of the bioethanol production/industry and its potential role in the mitigation of climate change, improved energy security and sustainable development in different country contexts, as well as methodological contributions for assessing the sustainability of biofuels production in connection with energy and climate policies.